Saturday, April 29

A Trip to Kyoto

Today Jim and I had a terrific day trip to Kyoto, which is a major city about 230 miles southwest (in a straight line) from Tokyo.  We have booked first-class reserved-seat "Green Car" tickets on the fastest Shinkansen "Bullet Train" Super Express (Nozomi) train.  This was once the fastest train in the world, now there are a few faster but this is the fastest in Japan.  I had looked into getting the Japan Rail "JR Pass" before leaving the US, since it's only available to foreign tourists and is not available inside Japan.  I didn't get it because I wasn't sure there would be time for a trip, and the pass isn't good on the Nozomi Super Express.  Other Shinkansen trains, the Hidari and Kodama use the same trains but make more stops.  The trip was 18,600 Y each way, which works out to about $166 each way.  According to the complex price schedule, the basic rate is 7980, plus a 5540 super express charge, plus a 200 peak period charge.  There's also a Green Car charge but I can't find that documented.  Anyway, we decided it was worth it, because you're in seats that feel like an airplane's Business Class and it's so quiet you can sleep nicely. 

We got up early since Nozomi 103 is at 7:03 from Tokyo station, three stops and two lines away.  Here's the clean but uncrowded subway as we wait for the next train, due at 6:26, bound for Kita-koshigaya.

Took a little wandering thru Tokyo station to find our track.  They built special elevated tracks for the high speed trains rather than retrofit existing ones, such as have been done for the Acela.  Here I am on board the Green Car, which is the first class car, only 2 seats on a side as compared to the three in the non-green car.  Our seats were also reserved so we knew which car and row to sit in.  Note the train calling me a gentleman.  Nice touch.

The train took off on time and was super smooth.  Here's some sights along the way.  The first two are the area around the Nagoya train station, the farm land is about 20 minutes outside of Nagoya.


You can see from the pictures we are moving, and we're going pretty fast.  This sign inside shows how fast we're going in kilometers per hour, which equates to 200 MPH.  Nice:
Shinkansen Expres indeed

Here are a couple of small videos showing what it looks like from the train.  This one is riding the Shinkansen, this one is at Kyoto as it passes by.

We arrived at Kyoto on time at 9:25.  The train is at least 12 cars long, we were in number 8.

More trains were coming and going.  There's hundreds of the Shinkansen all day long.

The Kyoto train station is huge and includes 2 malls and lots of shopping.  Here it is outside and inside:

The Japanese love their animation and we're not sure what this is but the boy in the front in black shorts was on kiosks around the building.

For the first time, I'm providing links to the sites we visit as seen from Google Earth.  Check out more info here.
Our first stop was going to be the Toji Temple, which was founded in 796.  We decided to walk rather than take a cab.  Along the way, saw another ham antenna stack:

Some of the inbound JR commuter trains:

As we went along we came across this good-sized plot of land that had a temple on it.  It wasn't quite where we thought Toji would be, but we went in.  Our first surprise was that there was this little fair set up and they were making cotton candy, selling cheap toys and inflating balloons.  Not quite what we expected:

We went to the temple and there were people praying and clapping to, we believe, wake up their departed ancestors and pay homage.  The man with the dog said there was a big festival tomorrow. 
We then figured we were at an active local temple, not Toji that we were initially headed for.  Besides, there was no 5-story pagoda here.  They were nice people but we were in the way, so we got out the map and headed in the direction we thought Toji was in.  Soon we saw the landmark we sought:

Google Earth link to Toji Temple

We paid our 1300¥ for the full tour and started checking out the buildings.  Inside the first two were collections of Buddhas, one arranged in a particular 21-object pattern called a Mikkyu Mandala.  No pictures were allowed inside the 400+ year old buildings but I bought the tour guide for an additional 800¥.  Here are the Buddhas and the buildings:

Moving on to the biggest pagoda in Japan:


Hard to read, but it says "Five Storied Pagoda, Edo Period, National Treasure, The Highest Pagoda Japan".  At the bottom is a Fuji logo.  I put Jim here for scale so you can see how big the timbers are.
Looking back to the 2 buildings with the Buddhas:
There's a nice garden on this site.  Everything was flowering, the birds and bees were happy, and Jim's allergies were acting up.
I planned this picture.  Hope you like it.

Leaving Toji we walked through some of downtown to get to the Subway at Kujo station.  We were heading for the Imperial Palace, north of where we were.

I have no pictures of where we had lunch, which was a small burger place called "Mos Burger" which had really good burgers.  It was really fresh and they put this sauce on the burgers that was kind of like a curry/salsa thing.  Really tasty.  It filled us up for the several mile walk we had ahead through the Imperial Palace.  Kyoto was the traditional capital of Japan until the mid 1800's.

Google Earth Link to the Imperial Palace
This is the entrance to the Imperial Palace, facing south.

Some of the tiles on the wall on the left:

This is the main wall of the palace, facing southeast, then the main gate called Kenreimon, built in 1630.
The guardhouse?  And the long wall going south.  This is over a quarter mile long.

We're not sure what this was, but I'm posting it here hoping someone can tell me.  They really featured this section of tree limb, noting where it was found and what it looks like.  It's an interesting arborial anomaly in any case.

We then proceeded to walk thru the garden and saw some neat trees, gardens and buildings.  You could really get the feeling for what it might have been like to have been Emperor and wandering through this 400+ years ago.  Unfortunately, we couldn't go inside because it's still an official complex and we would have had to apply earlier and provided passport information.
A rock in the center of the pond with about a dozen dozing turtles.

We basically walked from one subway stop to the next southern one, ending up here:

Our third stop was Nijo Castle, an amazing complex and a place history was undoubtedly made.  Google Earth Link to Nijo Castle.

Having seen the main entrance, the moat, the thick stone wall, and the iron gates, I would not have wanted to storm this castle.

We paid our 600¥ which turned out to be the best deal of the day.  Walking in over the moat you go around to the gates which have beautiful designs of inlay and gold leaf:


The building has dozens of rooms and a route you walk through.  You have to take your shoes off.  One interesting feature of the castle is the "Nightingale floor", which were specially designed to make bird-like squeaking sounds to detect intruders.  As the crowds walked over them it really did sound like a flock of birds.  Again, no picture-taking inside but I bought the guide book. You can download the official brochure here and here.




The castle was definitely worth the trip.  Leaving there we headed out to look for dinner.  We went over to the Sanjo Keihan subway station, and while there we saw some women in traditional dress, including the wooden shoes with the lifts.

Walking over the Kamo River, lots of people were enjoying the beautiful weather on its banks.

We tried one restaurant but our feet were hurting and I, at least, didn't feel up to sitting on my heels throughout dinner.  So we went down to the Shijo station and tried another restaurant which was in Jim's Lonely Planet guide book.  We wandered around for a while, and eventually decided this was the place, because the guide book said to look for the sake barrels in front.  We figured this was it:

Our Japanese language skills being limited, and our Japanese reading skills virtually non-existent, the ordering was somewhat difficult.  They had a handwritten english menu for drinks but did not have our could not find one for the regular food.  So they offered us a 10-item meal for 3500¥ which we thought sounded great.  We each had a couple of beers, Sapporo and something else, which all together brought the meal to 9500¥ for both of us, roughly $85.  Excellent.  The meal was in courses, first course was some very fresh tofu with herbs, that the girl told us to pour "very little" soy sauce on.  Yum.  Next course was 3 different sushi items, presented in a box:

Later courses included chicken teriyaki skewers, a hot bowl of a lime-flavored sauce with chicken, tofu and some other things that we were instructed to scoop out with a wooden slotted spoon and place in a bowl with cold salty sauce, which was amazingly tasty.  There was also a kind of cheese omelet, a bowl of fresh miso soup and a bowl of kind of a soupy sticky rice with an egg-drop fish mixture on top.  Finally, green tea ice cream.  I think we won.

Dinner had been about 2+ hours and it being about 8:30 we headed back to Kyoto station.  Once there we searched for the tracks and came across this picture on the lockers you can rent.  We're pretty darn sure this is Colorado, especially since the blue balloon has the Colorado flag symbol on it.

Some other pictures from the Kyoto station area, the Kyoto tower

and the train tracks.

Nozomi 322 left on time at 2108 and arrived on time at 2326.  I had chosen this train since it gave us roughly half an hour after arriving in Tokyo to head for the subway and catch a train.  They stop running around midnight, with Tokyo being the center of the "last train" universe.  We had an incredibly long walk, still not sure why since it wasn't that far going in the morning, and it felt worse than that A-train-to-Times-Square-Shuttle transfer I've had all too many times.  As it was, we got on a train at 2348 and there was only one more after that so the planning worked out. 

So we had good experiences in Kyoto.  We had been encouraged to spend a couple of days there, and undoubtedly we could find more things to see.  There are more historic temples and shrines, we didn't go up to the Tower, and Jim still feels regret that we didn't go back for "Rabbit Coffee".  But you can see a lot and do a lot in a single day, even more if you take a package bus tour instead of walking the 8 or so miles we did.  Recommended.